20 Years Since Tom Malchow Set The Last Pre-Phelps 200 ‘Fly World Record (Career Video)

Malchow, Tom
Tom Malchow - Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

Tom Malchow, it was written, “didn’t look at the big board. The crowd provided the proof”: with a 200m butterfly World record of 1:55.18, the American had finally got past the Russian, on the clock at least, who had claimed Olympic gold ahead of him at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996.

Denis Pankratov had held the standard since June 14, 1995. Five years on – on this day 20 years ago, Malchow shaved 0.04sec off the global standard to set the first World record ever established in the then 16-year history of the Charlotte UltraSwim.

Malchow was on his way to bigger things: at Sydney 2000 three months later, he would also take Pankratov’s crown, in an Olympic record of 1:55.35, the Russian beyond his best days and back in seventh, the new champion’s 15-year-old teammate, a boy called Michael Phelps, home in fifth just 0.33sec shy of the podium and 1.15 adrift the prize he would go on to claim a record 23 times over the next four Olympics.

Back in Charlotte on this day in 2000, Malchow was pushed by a capacity crowd at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center: they stood and roared for the final 100 meters, the local Charlotte Observer noted the next morning in the days when reports were not digital but next day. The new record holder told the paper:

“I went out fast at the beginning, and I could hear the crowd pushing me during the race. I can’t tell you how much that helped. This puts me in an elite class of swimmers. There’s not many that can say they’ve set a world record.”

Indeed not – and in the 200m butterfly, unbeknown to him and everyone else that day, young Phelps would take the standard in 1:54.92 on March 30 the following year and, in eight master strokes and through a roller coaster of two Olympic crowns won, one lost and then another regained, would own the standard for the next 18 years until Hungarian Kristof Milak took the pace below 1:51 for the World crown in 2019.

Tom Malchow, after a prelims swim of 2:02.26, took the lead early in lane 4 of the final in Charlotte the day he joined the exclusive club of pace pioneers of the pool. He was wearing what was described as “one of the new full-body swimsuits”, a textile ankle-to-neck-and-wrist suit the world had got used to seeing courtesy of the exploits of Australian Ian Thorpe in Adidas compression.

At 100m, Malchow’s 55.53 split was inside Pankratov’s pace and “the noise coming from the stands sent an electric jolt through the building,” reported the Observer. “It never stopped, working its way to a deafening climax when Malchow finished. All eyes except Malchow’s looked for the time. He already knew.” Malchow, who swam for Michigan and still lived in Ann Arbor said:

“I didn’t look. I put my head down and listened, just took it all in. I knew. The crowd told me. I could tell I was close near the end of the race, and those final 30 meters were painful, but I went after it. A lot of people were hyping this – they thought it could be done here.”

UltraSwim officials had planned for it too: with world-class swimmers on the ticket – Brooke Bennett, Tom Dolan, Cristina Teuscher, Maddy Crippen, Kristy Kowal, Ashley Tappin and Neil Walker were all in the mix – they’d had the pool surveyed to make sure nothing could stand in the way of ratification should a record fall on their watch. Drug-testing was provided, too, for the same reason.

Tom Malchow

For Malchow, the day and his achievement had an extra edge of emotion: he dedicated his accomplishment to Ryan Weggenman, the brother of his girlfriend who was killed in a March car accident.

Malchow, then 23, had been the baby of the men’s team in 1996. On the cusp of Sydney 2000, he was looking to be a leader, on the team and in the water for the USA. He said:

“A gold medal would top off my career. Setting the world record makes the year special. Winning in Sydney would make it perfect.”

He would get his perfect ending – and more on that later in the year when we celebrate his Olympic victory.

In 2014, Malchow entered the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

In his induction speech, he spoke of “the people that I surrounded myself with, and have supported me throughout my career,” from the coaches who helped push him to the top of swimming’s highest honour to the teammates who challenged him.

Watch the video of Tom Malchow career highlights, followed by his humbling speech, courtesy of ISHOF:

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